The Unknown Congolese Heroes – Book Review: ‘Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II’

Spies in the Congo by Dr. Susan Williams discusses U.S. intelligence operations in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo: DRC), to secure uranium during World War II while also preventing Nazi Germany from obtaining said mineral for its own nuclear weapons program. This is a very well-written book that effectively narrates the activities that members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) carried out in the Belgian Congo. Without a doubt, Williams’ book combines both a deep discussion about World War II geopolitics while also bringing these individuals, too many of whom died at a young age, to life.

Moreover, Spies in the Congo discusses the other unknown heroes of this massive operation, the people of the Congo itself, who suffered then and continue to suffer, because of the richness of their country.

An Ideal Movie Plot

What transpired in the Belgian Congo during World War II is a plot worthy of a movie or a Netflix miniseries. On 2 August 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, explaining that uranium reserves in the U.S. were very poor and in moderate quantities. He added that some good ore may be found in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo. As war in Europe was looming – Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March of that year and invaded Poland only a month later following Einstein’s letter in September. As a consequence, it was important for the U.S. to push forward with its own nuclear program which required rich ore.

The book discusses in great detail the activities of OSS members in the Belgian Congo as they attempted to procure all uranium out of the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga, and how it was transported from there to the coast: first to Lobito in Angola, a Portuguese colony at the time, and later through Matadi in the Congo and from there to the U.S. As the OSS members set up and monitored this massive operation, we learn more about them, as well as other individuals and entities that were involved in the uranium game: the sometimes unhelpful US consuls in the Congo, the British intelligence officers; Belgian officials, like the governor general of the Congo, the Belgian state police and intelligence agency Sûreté de l’État, which operated in the Congo; Belgian companies like Union Minière du Haut Katanga (which operated the Shinkolobwe mine) and Société Générale (which controlled the UMHK) not to mention the several often-unreliable individuals that the OSS had to work with. Everyone had his own interests and objectives.

Williams does an excellent job at explaining how Washington and the OSS in the Belgian Congo, successfully managed to keep its operations regarding the Shinkolobwe mine a secret, not to mention the overall objective of the Manhattan Project. The OSS team in the Belgian Congo, led by the book’s protagonist, Wilbur Owings “Dock” Hogue (Codename Teton), managed to successfully maintain a cover to combat the illegal diamond trade, rather than uranium. There was a constant fear that the Nazis would somehow figure out the US operations in the Belgian Congo and attempt to smuggle uranium via Nazi-friendly smugglers and Belgian officials. The Allies were also unclear about how developed Nazi Germany’s nuclear program was. In the end, to the Allies’ surprise, said program was not very developed at all.

Congolese uranium will be eventually used for the U.S. nuclear bombs (“Little Boy” and “Fat Man”) that were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Unknown Heroes

Thanks to declassified documents and other research, we know more about OSS operations in the Belgian Congo, as well as the divided interests of the Belgian government and business community both in Brussels and Léopoldville (now Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC). Some were determined to fight the Nazis, while others were sympathetic. There was also a faction that behaved pragmatically supporting whichever side was winning the war.

But what about the Congolese themselves? While Spies in the Congo focuses on the OSS and World War II, Williams does a great job telling us about the people who actually worked at the Shinkolobwe mine and helped win the war.

‘Spies in the Congo’ by Susan Williams. 432 pp. PublicAffairs

Williams is blunt about the treatment of the Congolese by the Belgians. Both before and during the war, they were exploited, and the eventual victory of the Allies did nothing to improve their conditions until the Belgian Congo’s eventual independence in 1960. She discusses the role of King Leopold II of Belgium, which transformed the territory into the Congo Free State in the 19th century. Leopold’s harsh rule has been well examined, including the use of the infamous chicotte “which at the time was made from hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges,” to punish the Congolese. How many Congolese died during Leopold’s rule is anyone’s guess. Williams cites the number at 10 million “as result of the routine brutality and executions,” but other authors cite different numbers, also in the millions; hence the genocide during the Congo Free State should be more well-known than it is today. (For more information about Leopold’s rule and Congo, see Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.)

During World War II, the Allies’ need for Africa’s raw resources, such as uranium, rubber, cotton among others, dramatically increased. Williams explains how “between 1938 and 1944, the Union Minière workforce almost doubled from 25,000 to 49,000; so did the number of fatal accidents at Union Minière plants.” Even more, Congolese soldiers were also conscripted into the Force Publique, the Belgian Colonial Army, which fought in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), Nigeria, Egypt and Palestine. The 11th battalion of the Force Publique included 3,000 Congolese soldiers and 2,000 bearers who fought valiantly in Ethiopia. Unsurprisingly, Congolese soldiers were badly treated by white officers, and they were told that, if they fled, their families would be punished. This mirrored the situation of the Congolese in the civilian world under Belgian rule, as they were treated as second class citizens, underpaid and segregated from white-neighborhoods in Leopoldville or Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi).

As a final point, it is important to highlight that the radioactivity of uranium does not care about skin color. Several OSS personnel would become sick and die at early ages, partially weakened by diseases like malaria, but their continuous exposure to uranium certainly did not help their health. The same can be said about the Congolese workers who worked at the Shinkolobwe mine without protective equipment. Williams correctly concludes that the Congolese “were simply used as workers, as if they had no rights as equal human beings. This was a process for which the US, the UK and Belgium bear a heavy responsibility.”

Analysis: Who Benefits from Congo’s riches?

In her conclusions, Dr. Williams discusses how, when Congo achieved independence, it attempted to remain neutral in the emerging Cold War, “but it was unavoidable: the Congo’s resources, including its uranium, put the newly independent nation at the very heart of Cold War concerns.”

This seems to be part of a pattern when it comes to the Congo; over the centuries, different outside actors have arrived to plunder and steal (for there is no other term to describe this process) its natural resources: during World War II, it was the U.S. to defeat the Nazi empire; today they are transnational companies, rebel movements, not to mention certain governments. Whether it is diamonds, uranium, copper, cobalt or coffee, it seems that the entire world benefits from the Congo, except for the Congolese themselves.

A lot has changed in the past 70 plus years since the end of the War: the DRC is now an independent nation, but Congolese villagers continue to work for transnational companies in atrocious circumstances, with said companies giving little back to local communities in exchange for what they extract.

In early June 2018, the DRC signed into law a revised version of the 2002 mining code, which will hopefully mean more tax revenue for the government from transnational companies that operate in the country. “The DRC does not have a strong history of obtaining taxes from the general population, so taxes from these companies are vital for our development,” explains one of the authors of this commentary. Unsurprisingly, this move has prompted criticism by mining companies like Glencore and Randgold, which argue that “the tax hikes and the removal of exemptions for pre-existing operations are a breach of their agreements with the government,” explains Reuters.

As for Congolese-Belgian relations, the legacy of the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo remains in the minds of the Congolese who have learned their nation’s history, not to mention the role that the Belgian government played in the assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (a renowned supporter of Pan-Africanism) via Katangan separatists in 1961. Brussels has recognized its role in Lumumba’s death: it apologized in 2002 and this past June it inaugurated the Patrice Lumumba square at the entrance to the Belgian capital’s largely Congolese Matonge area. In spite of the symbolic importance of this initiative, bilateral relations have continued to deteriorate and it will be important to monitor these to see if they improve in the future after the DRC’s upcoming elections, scheduled for December 2018.

Without a doubt, Spies in the Congo is a great book that tells a vital, though obscure story about World War II, namely the role the Congo had in helping the Allies win, and the U.S. development of its nuclear program in particular. Today Congo continues to supply the world with critically important resources, and sadly the vast majority of the Congolese people have yet to profit from them.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.